Quality

Motorcycle riding is romantic while motorcycle maintenance is purely classic.

— Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Sitting in Prinzessinnen Gärten, enjoying the first outdoor lunch of the season, I got to talking with a Berlin transplant about Quality.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig is reconciling two types of personalities:

  • the romantic mode: primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, and intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate.
  • and the classical mode: straightforward, unadorned, unemotional, economical and carefully proportioned. Its purpose is to bring order out of chaos.

We find these modes prevalent in our society, and often within ourselves as well, as we alternate between these two ways of seeing the world.

In the weird way you discover similarities in your day-to-day work and philosophical models, I was struck by parallels in Pirsig to what we’re doing at Mozilla.

On the one hand, we’re building initiatives to inspire the romantics, the “non-technical” personalities who don’t want to be bothered with the inner workings of code…at least not yet.

These initiatives are about imagination and creativity, self-expression, and a sense of wonder. The 14-year old sending a lovebomb to her mom, the filmmaker re-imagining his film for the web, the journalist remixing a rival newspaper’s website and sending it around the office for laughs.

On the other hand, we’re delivering tools that push what’s possible technically. They are about executing good code, improving software offerings, establishing infrastructure standards, and working with people to dig into code and think algorithmically. Popcorn contributors squashing bugs to speed up the tools, a badge issuer complying with specifications, a developer producing a sophisticated hack to display timelines better in news stories.

making popcorn

At moments in the organization, you can feel the tension between these two modes, the romantic and the classical. They have different perspectives, different ways of evaluating the world and our progress within it.

Pirsig’s book was about the interrelation of the two modes, neither one “winning out” in the end, but rather being pushed to the point where the division between them dissolves.

At the cutting edge of time, before an object can be distinguished, there must be a kind of nonintellectual awareness. You can’t be aware that you’ve seen a tree until after you’ve seen the tree.

— Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Pirsig uses the metaphor of a train, rushing down the tracks. At the front of the train, propelled by romantic knowledge, you push to the edge of time where the division of perception and intellectual awareness dissolve. The train cars, built and maintained by classical knowledge, are essentially all institutional knowledge and empirical findings. And the tracks that the train runs on is Quality, the continuing stimulus inspiring us to create and push forward in the world.

Pirsig Definition of Quality

Of course, this model isn’t really immediately helpful to improving how different parts of an organization work together.

If anything, though, it does reinforce that the way to speak to people is through the inspirational “what’s possible” romantic mode, all the while supporting the momentum with a real corpus of code and ensuring that quality continues to be the guiding principle of where we’re going and stimulus to keep doing what we’re doing.

You can read more about Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality in Wikipedia or pick up a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I certainly forgot how much I enjoyed reading it the first time.

Images: Time For a Rest At The Camp Buell State Historical Site., Definition of Quality by Robert Pirsig

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